As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I was interested to see a Third Circuit decision that could change how federal courts in Pennsylvania determine jurisdiction in personal injury cases involving more than one state. In Washington v. Hovensa LLC, Gloria Washington sued Hovensa and Triangle Construction and Maintenance, Inc., after Triangle employees working on Hovensa property in the Virgin Islands injured her. Washington owned a home in Texas but was back in the islands for work. The district court dismissed her suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, saying she was properly a Virgin Islands resident, not a Texas resident. The Third reversed that and remanded it, saying the district court did not give enough weight to her intent to return to Texas.
Washington worked for Sabine Storage Operations, a Texas company that sent her to the islands to work as a pipe inspector for an indefinite period of time. She had been born in St. Croix and had family in the islands, who she saw regularly while she was there. She owned a home in Baytown, Texas and had rented an apartment in the islands. She had not returned to Texas for several months before she drove onto Hovensa’s property, where she was assigned to work at a Hovensa refinery. She drove her rental car past a site where Triangle employees were conducting sandblasts that she said were improperly supervised and used faulty equipment. She sued Triangle and Hovensa in Virgin Islands federal court, based on diversity of citizenship. The defendants moved to dismiss for lack of diversity, arguing that Washington was a VI citizen, not a Texas citizen. The district court granted this, overriding an affidavit by Washington stating her intent to return to Texas. Washington appealed, repeating her intent to return to Texas when the assignment was over.
The Third Circuit started by noting that caselaw requires courts to presume in favor of an old domicile over a new one, although the person seeking diversity (in this case, Washington) still has the burden of proof. It’s not clear that the district court took that into account, the Third said, despite the list of facts weighing in favor of finding that Washington lived in Texas: home ownership, driver’s license, doctor, vehicle registration, mobile phone and bank account. The Third acknowledged that Washington’s affidavit was “self-serving,” in that it could easily have been engineered to give Washington the outcome she preferred. But it did not see why the district court relied on the Third Circuit’s own 1968 decision in Korn v. Korn, a decision that said affidavits must be disregarded as self-serving — but only when they are contradicted by inconsistent behavior. Because Washington’s behavior has not been inconsistent, it said, the district court was wrong to disregard her affidavit. It also wrongly disregarded certain evidence, the court noted. Thus, it reversed the district court and remanded the case.
This case is mostly about jurisdiction, not the injury to Washington, so one might wonder why a Philadelphia accident lawyer like me would be interested. As it happens, where a lawsuit is heard can make a big difference. In this case, because the Virgin Islands is a relatively small community, Washington might feel that her chances of objective treatment are better in the federal courts than in Islands courts, whose judges might socialize with business leaders from Hovensa and Triangle. Federal court might also be more advantageous if federal law offers causes of action or rules of court that state law does not have. When the connection is strong, as with Washington’s connection to Texas, this practice can offer injured people an opportunity to make the strongest case they can to hold the negligent party financially and legally accountable.
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